Friday, February 21, 2020

ARTICLE: PREMISES LIABILITY UPDATE

Here is a copy of an article of mine that was published in the January, 2020 edition of Counterpoint, the official publication of the Pennsylvania Defense Institute. 

A copy of any of the opinions noted can be secured by typing the case name into the Search Box in the upper right hand corner of the Tort Talk Blog at www.TortTalk.com.  This will take you to the Tort Talk post(s) that review the case searched in which you will find a Link to the Opinion.


PREMISES LIABILITY UPDATE

By

Daniel E. Cummins




Daniel E. Cummins is the managing partner of the Clarks Summit, PA law firm of Cummins Law. He is also the writer of the Tort Talk Blog and provides mediation services through Cummins Mediation.

Dog Bite

In the case of Roegner v. Steezar, No. 2019-CV-929 (C.P. Lacka. Co. Sept. 6, 2019 Nealon, J.), the court addressed Preliminary Objections filed by a dog owner in a dog bite case in which the Defendant filed a demurrer seeking to dismiss the action on the grounds that the allegations of the Complaint were legally insufficient to state a claim of negligence against the dog owner. 

According to the Opinion, the Plaintiffs were the guests at the property of the Defendants, Joseph Steezar and Maryellen Steezar, when the Plaintiff was suddenly attacked by a pit bull that was owned by Defendant, Ryan Steezar.

The Plaintiffs filed a premises liability claim against the Steezars and further asserted that Ryan Steezar engaged in negligent conduct, careless conduct, gross, wanton, and reckless conduct for failing to adequately control the pit bull when he knew or should have known that the dog had a tendency to attack and had dangerous propensities. The Plaintiff additionally alleged that Ryan Steezar had violated the dog law by failing to properly confine, secure or control his dog and/or by harboring a dangerous animal. 

The Defendant dog owner filed a demurrer asserting that Pennsylvania law establishes that no absolute liability may be imposed upon a dog owner for injuries caused by dogs. Rather, proof of the owner’s negligence is required, such as showing that the owner had prior knowledge of the dog’s vicious propensities. 

The Defendant asserted a demurrer indicating that the Plaintiff’s Complaint contained no allegations which would allow for the imposition of liability under Pennsylvania law for the Plaintiff’s alleged injuries. 

The court agreed with the Defendant that the mere ownership of a dog does not subject a dog owner to absolute liability for injuries caused by the dog. 

Judge Nealon referred to the settled law that provides that, for a victim of a dog bit to establish negligence on the part of the dog’s owner, the victim must prove that (1) the dog had dangerous propensities; (2) the owner knew, or had reason to know, that the dog had those dangerous propensities; and (3) the owner failed to exercise reasonable care to secure or control the dog so as to prevent it from injuring another person. 

The court additionally stated that a dog’s dangerous propensity is determined by the dog’s behavior rather than its breed. It was also noted that a large overly-friendly dog that jumps on to people may be considered to be judged as dangerous as a vicious dog. 

Under Pennsylvania law, there is no distinction between an animal that is dangerous and viciousness and one that this merely dangerous from playfulness. 

Accepting the Plaintiff’s allegations in the Complaint as true as required by the standard of review for a demurrer, the court found that Plaintiff had stated a cognizable cause of action in negligence against the dog owner. 

As such, the demurrer was denied and the court suggested that the Defendant could revisit the issue once discovery is completed.

Trivial Defect Doctrine

In the case of McKenzie v. Wal-Mart, No. 1540-CV-2018 (C.P. Monroe Co. Oct. 18, 2019 Williamson, J.), Judge David J. Williamson of the Monroe County Court of Common Pleas granted a Defendant store’s Motion for Summary Judgment in a trip and fall case.

According to the Opinion, during the afternoon hours of October 3, 2017, the Plaintiff was walking from his vehicle to the store when he tripped and fell in the parking lot due to an alleged defect in the seam between the sidewalk and a raised curb. The alleged defect was a gap that was estimated to be somewhere between one and a quarter inches wide, one and a half inches deep, and running the length of the sidewalk.

The defense filed a Motion for Summary Judgment arguing that the Plaintiff was unable to show that there was any defeat to the walking surface or that any alleged defect that was allegedly present was a trivial defect.

In response, the Plaintiff asserted that the triviality of a defect is a question of fact that should be put to the jury.

Judge Williamson pointed to Pennsylvania cases that reviewed the trivial defect doctrine and in which it had been held that an elevation, depression, or irregularity in a sidewalk may be so trivial that the court, as a matter of law, is bound to hold that there is no negligence in permitting it to exist. He also noted that the courts have held that there is no definite or mathematical rule that can be laid down as to the depth or size off a sidewalk depression necessary to give rise to liability on a landowner.

After reviewing prior decisions out of Monroe County involving similar facts, Judge Williamson noted in this McKenzie case that, reviewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the Plaintiff, summary judgment was appropriate as the circumstances surrounding the alleged defect did not rise to support any finding of negligence. The court noted that the gap at issue was clearly visible, not overly large, and appeared to be a part of the design of the sidewalk.

Slip and Fall
In the case of Elliot v. Cinemark USA, Inc., 5550-CV-2017 (C.P. Monroe Co. Oct. 4, 2019 Williamson, J.), the court entered summary judgment in favor of a movie theater in a slip and fall matter after finding that the Plaintiff did not establish that the Defendant had actual or constructive notice of the existence of a dangerous condition.

According to the Opinion, the Plaintiff went to the Defendant’s theater in the early afternoon hours to see a movie. While walking near a self-serve condiment station in the lobby, the Plaintiff slipped and fell. The Plaintiff alleged that she slipped and fell on a spill of popcorn butter.

According to the evidence in the case, the Defendant admitted that the self-serve condiment area was known to become messy quickly such that it was the theater’s policy to clean the area every thirty (30) minutes. The Plaintiff alleged that this policy was inadequate.

The Plaintiff had testified that the floor was wet and greasy when she fell. Another witness testified to the existence of a couple of drops of some substance, about the size of a quarter, approximately three (3) feet from the counter.

The Defendant’s employees testified that they performed the required half-hour checks at the condiment station. The Defendant also provided documentation to show that the various cleaning tasks had been completed that afternoon.

Based upon the record before the court, the judge ruled that the Plaintiff did not establish that the Defendant had any actual or constructive notice of any dangerous condition. As such, summary judgment was entered in favor of the theater.

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